Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Bitless Dressage is Stupid

An MS Paint Special brought to you by SprinklerBandits Blog.

Premature PS: If you're looking for a serious discussion of this topic, hop on over to Austen's blog. If you like snark, ms paint masterpieces, and have your popcorn ready, keep on reading.

There's an article going around right now about yet another petition to allow bitless dressage, which at present isn't allowed in competition by any credible organization anywhere in the world. This is fairly unusual--the only other thing people are as united against is child porn, but let's not think too hard about that.

Instead let's think about dressage. It's done by people on horses.

This is a person.
this cool person has a top hat
 This is a horse.
In case you missed the big red flag there, a horse weighs around 10x what an average person does. Interesting. Hold that thought.

Next, a HUUUUUUUGE component of dressage is having the horse "on the bit".
pictured: not on the bit

Why? Because dressage isn't a series of party tricks performed in a big top tent for a paying crowd. It's an art, a dance even, where two separate entities together become something more than either one is on their own. A person doing dressage without a horse is just an idiot in a tail coat and a horse doing dressage without a person is out of control.

What's more "on the bit" doesn't mean "head down, nose tucked in". That's called "head down, nose tucked in" or "hunters" or "trail riding" or what-have-you. Head-down-nose-tucked-in is fine, but it's not "on the bit".
When a horse is on the bit, it's the first step in a larger dance. It's the moment where the horse and the rider change from having two minds and two balance points and two ideas about life to one. It's where "awkwardly tripping over the other person" becomes "ballroom dancing". It's not static--this is a dynamic tension between horse and rider that is the first and most elemental step to all the steps that ever follow.
and you thought i was a one-trick pony

That's why it's not piaffe when your OTTB inverts and jigs. That's inverting and jigging. There's no connection (whaaaaaaat it works on so many levels)(all puns intended).

So let's circle back around to that first part.




There's a reason "bull in a china store" isn't a pleasant descriptor of dance or dressage. Think about it. The horse outweighs you by a factor of 10. Human biology is such that even if we can lift 10x our body weight, it's not a pleasant, graceful, melding of two entities. It's raw, Neanderthal-esque brutality.

And I'm not saying that to piss on Neanderthals--they surely serve(d?) a mighty purpose, just that purpose wasn't horse dancing.
this chap does not have a top hat

A bit is the Colt .45 of the old west (God didn't make all men equal--Mr Colt did. C'mon. Keep up.). Because we puny humans are exponentially smaller and weaker than our equine partners, we need a way to be in balance with them that doesn't involve sheer 1:1 force, because given the simple physics of human vs. equine size, that force is and must be unreasonable to both human and horse.

In simple fact: a bit is not a device to allow humans to muscle horses around. A bit instead permits two-way communication between two partners whose two separate balance points have become one single point.

A bit is the lifeline of communication. A bit allows us to whisper straight to the horse's mouth without all that trouble of shouting at it's face like an asshole.
top hat doesn't make it a good idea
So bits. They give us the nuance of communication between human and horse in a way that both parties and understand and respect. They enable the balance that takes us from awkward tripping in a high school gym to the show ring and beyond.


To which I say:

And also:

1) If you're not part of the balance, maybe you need to reconsider what the hell you're doing up there. But. Who am I to judge your very majikul konnektion and yes that was three ks figure it out.

2) The number of people who believe they don't need a bridle vs the number of people who actually don't need a bridle is a scary, scary number. Of ALL the accomplished equestrians I know across all the disciplines, I can think of 1 person who I would trust in public (you know, like at shows, which is what we're talking about) without a bridle and that person told me in no uncertain terms that in her mind, riding without a bridle is stupid because of the vast capacity for things to go wrong. You think your bridle is for steering. I think you're a dumbass. I guess that's as far as it gets.

And to clarify--I'm not hating on riding at home in a halter or hackamore or whatever scary-ass bitless leverage contraption you've strapped on your horse's head. Do whatever the hell you want. I'm just saying that at shows, your logic is invalid. The level playing field is predicated on all of us actually trying to achieve the same thing. So like. Go ahead. Be a champion of head-down-nose-tucked-in, but just don't do it at tense-inverted-jigging show if you want to win.

Ok internet. Go nuts.


  1. Yeah I completely disagree lol. I think that a horse can still be on the contact and on the aids in a bitless (not on the bit - a phrase I've always hated - but on the contact and on the aids, which IMO is much more accurate of what we're going for in dressage anyway). A horse can still achieve self-carriage without a bit. It can still achieve collection without a bit.

    I also definitely don't think that the bit should be the lifeline of communication... I think your seat and leg should do that. The bit is just a place to channel it all, and you can just as easily channel it into a bitless. The end point is just the nose instead of the mouth. Some horses prefer that, some horses don't.

    I also don't think that bitless gives you less control or makes you more dangerous... not by any means. People run 4* XC without a bit. If someone is THAT dependent on having a bit, a) they're seriously doing it wrong, b) they wouldn't be the person that wants to ride a dressage test bitless anyway.

    Allowing horses to go bitless (and not in a leverage hackamore, that's a no for me. Side pull or bitless bridle only.) would open up the sport for a lot of people. I know several who have horses with mouth or jaw damage that have a hard time being comfortable with a bit in their mouth. Usually they end up having to pursue other sports.

    I say let them at it. I think they'd actually be at a disadvantage, especially in front of most judges. They'd probably have to put in a better test to get as good a score. So no, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if someone wants to do bitless dressage, and if they can put in as good a test without a bit, more power to them.

    A few countries in Europe have already started allowing bitless at the lower levels and it seems to be working out fine. It's not like they're saying everyone has to use one... they're just saying you're allowed to if you want. How many people actually will? Very few. Likely only the ones that absolutely have to.

    1. Thank you for articulating what I could not.

    2. Took the words right out out my mouth in a much more articulate way!

    3. Yes. FB pony pretty much covers every point I wanted to make.

    4. This ^^^

      Pretty sure I can't say it any better. I have seen scary riding from people with all sorts of different biting options - and generally speaking it isn't a bit problem but a connection issue... if you can't ride your horse from your seat and leg... regardless of the bit or lack thereof you're probably not riding correctly. I feel qualified to say this given that I am dealing with a connection issue with my own horse and no bit will fix that for me. A bit is not a life line and imo should not be compared to a gun. Are we now saying that a bit is like holding your horse at gun point to be obedient? (To go to the extremes).

      Everyone has their own opinion but I really don't understand why you wouldn't allow someone to use a sidepull or other non leverage device as an option. More often than not people won't use it anyways and it won't be giving anyone an advantage unless like Amanda mentioned there are injuries or other issues present.

    5. I whole-heartedly agree with Amanda.

    6. Agree with Amanda. Very well written.

    7. That was exactly what I was going to say. I was also going to add that riding my Arab in a riding halter (a rope halter with strategically placed rings) gives me a totally different feel and forces me to improve my seat and leg aids. As a side note, Speedy will do weird things with his mouth bitless. He'll gape his mouth or grind his teeth or do other things to show resistance to the work. He's a bit of a sourpuss sometimes. Would I put my big brown monster in a halter and ride him around? Heck no, we still need some leverage to communicate, but I look forward to the day that bitless bridles are legal.

    8. This is just what I was formulating in my head... So +1 😊

    9. Yesssssss. Absolutely. All of this.

    10. I'm in this camp. I think where you (general you) fall depends on whether you consider acceptance of a literal bit in the horse's mouth as part of the training scale, or if the intent is for the horse to be "on the aids" with or without a bit. I don't show and I didn't make the rules, so who am I to say which school is correct 😆

    11. I'd like to add that horses exhibit self-carriage and collection on their own, without tack, or (often the real issue) a rider.

  2. I think seat and leg are far more important for contact and communication that the bit. Comparing a bit to a gun seems pretty disturbing. I wouldn't want to carry that analogy to fruition while on a horse.

    I am not sure where you get the idea that hunters go "head down, chin tucked in." Having ridden in hunter flat classes, I distinctly remember my trainer saying "let him poke is nose out" and any horse with its poll below its withers would not pin.

    I don't know enough about bitless riding to know how much dressage could be accomplished bitless, but any rider relying heavily on the bit for communication won't get far.

    1. Sadly relying heavily on the bit is how many riders "get far". The allow bitless debate is a backlash to the abusiveness that us rollkur.

    2. honestly i think we miss the point by focusing on misuse of the bit. the conversation is less about dressage riders "relying on the bit" vs demonstrating that, in fact, we DO NOT need to rely on it, that we have achieved "good contact"

      the best way to demonstrate that is by being effective in application of the aid - which is exactly what is scored in the components of "rider's effectiveness" and "horse's submission and acceptance" scores.

      riding without the bit does nothing to show whether in fact the horse is actually trained to accept the aids, or whether the rider is actually capable of giving them.

    3. Delwyn--fair point. I guess my idea of getting far is less about competitive success and more about a harmonious relationship with the horse.

      Emma--I agree that a bit is a component demonstrating a horse's acceptance to the aids but I don't think it's a necessary one--a horse can submit to accept seat, leg, and hand aids without a bit. Perhaps a bit allows for more accurate communication in some horses more than others and personally my horse is going in a bit no matter what, but some horses can perform very well bitless, demonstrating acceptance to leg and seat aids at the very least. I am on the fence as to whether requiring bits does much to "level the playing field" when so many other factors come into play.

    4. Dear Karen,

      It's called a "simile". Definition here:


  3. Interesting. This is the first thing I've read against doing bitless dressage so thank you for providing that side! That said, I'll have to disagree too. I've had horses that have a much better connection in a bitless sidepull type set-up than with a bit and have often wished it was legal to show in a bitless bridle. I hope that they change the rules personally because I can see a lot of horses benefiting, ones that have never been comfortable in a bit.

  4. this is a really interesting view point - and potentially an important conversation to have bc it speaks both to the purpose of our equipment, and also our understanding (grounded in reality or otherwise) of our own ability to communicate with the horse.

    two riders come immediately into mind when i think of bridleless riding (not the same as bitless, i know) and that's Elisa Wallace with her demo mustangs, and Stacy Westfall and her famous bareback bridleless championship reining routine.

    sure, Elisa's demos might basically amount to trick riding, but i'd still argue that she's accomplishing greater degrees of connection, 'on the aids', and collection than i ever really do with my own riding haha. and obviously Stacy's famous reining pattern demonstrated some world class riding and training.

    the flip side tho, and going back to the specifically bitless point of your post - is that most of us aren't Elisa Wallace or Stacy Westfall (or insert whatever pro rider's name here that you want). and if i'm understanding correctly, you argue that the bit is a critical component of the conversation, especially when things might start going a little sideways. that being able to communicate with seat and legs is just as important, but the bit is a big part of not only the nuance, but the back up plan (much like spurs and a whip). especially at the lower levels when either the horse or rider may be unconfirmed in the training.

    it's at these earliest levels that the rider *must* learn to correctly and appropriately use all aids to influence the horse's way of going. and each test and level has requirements about what the expectations are surrounding contact - specifically meaning, what the rider needs to know how to accomplish *with* a bit at each level, with the purpose of preparing for the next level. a big part of learning and moving up the levels is specifically learning how to apply aids in a dressage fashion and to influence and raise the horse's frame over time until he's ultimately at a high degree of self carriage and balance. over reliance or abuse of the bit sure as shit isn't going to get you to that point, but throwing the whole thing out the window is probably not super likely to help either.

    1. one additional rumination on this subject (it's definitely thought provoking!!):

      a major score component of every dressage test i've ever ridden is the horse's submission and acceptance of the aids.

      This speaks to the purpose of the training - we do not use the bit to control or to force, we use it to communicate. and a well trained horse will demonstrate this through submission and acceptance. this is that level playing field: we all have the same equipment, but perhaps all our training and experiences are not equal. those who have worked on training for true and effective communication through the bit will simply score better.

  5. 1000000% disagree times a million. My horse is just as light and responsive, if not better, with no bit and if anyone thinks that's not dressage (which literally means training) then they need some lessons. On the bit is an admittedly stupid phrase but I agree with Amanda. If you NEED a bit as a lifeline, you're doing it wrong. Good riding comes from all parts of the body, not just the hands and I think it's actually impressive if someone can ride without a bit and still perform just as well as someone with a bit ;) I also think that it wouldn't be a crutch, if anything competing with less and not more is equally as impressive as well. Its unfortunate dressage requires a bit and bridle, and I am one of many that hopes they allow bitless because my horse loathes them.


  7. I mean I don't think we should be banning bits from dressage, but it's absolutely possible to ride without one and I have zero problems with allowing people to compete bitless.

    Honestly, a horse being "on the bit" really has very little with a bit.

  8. I disagree. Bitless doesn't work for me personally, but I do know other riders who show bitless and do a great job. (Personally, I dislike nutcracker bits and tying them in a horse's mouth. We all have what works for us.)

    And the United States Confederation for Working Equitation allows "Bitted bridles, bitless bridles, and sidepulls are allowed. Natural or authentic bosal
    hackamores are allowed." We do dressage, Ease of Handling and Speed. And bitless is allowed.

  9. Can't state of better than already stated. My only thought is that even on a green as grass mare, if I can't do a movement on her without facial contact my trainer will not let us move on. The most important part is her listening to my legs and seat first... She has no need to go bitless but I love the idea, that would take care of blue tongues, gadgets, bloody mouths etc!

  10. I disagree. High level dressage can be done bridless. Many jumpers compete in hacks, those are some powerful and sometime high strung, horses there. Eventers go xc in hacks. That is certainly a place where all heck could break loose, and yet it doesn't. The group that I fox hunt with has two field masters that go in a hack, even more so than eventing things could go really, really wrong there. Yet they typically don't. Sure you want a dressage horse on the bit, but you also want them light in the bridle and carrying themselves. Which means essentially that you shouldn't really need the bit there anyway.

    Lastly, western dressage does allow a horse to be shown in a bosal or Dr. Cook bridle. I would consider WDAA to be a credible orginazation that has worked closely with USDF officials and judges to help build and define western dressage while staying true to both the western aspect and the dressage aspect.

  11. Seat belts on, girls.

    I agree that bitless dressage has some problems, but not the ones you stated. My concern is that people automatically think bitless = far more humane. Um, no. The nose is very sensitive and many of the bitless options have a leverage component. A badly used hackamore is not kinder than a bit in any way, shape, or form. Even one of those Dr. Cook bridles in bad hands or a run away horse that doesn't respect it can be cruel. Add to that the pressure of competition and trying to prove you can do it? It could easily turn into people forcing the nose in and down by pressure on that sensitive nose. Um, nope. I don't see that as a step in the right direction for horse rights.


    Some horses go better without a bit. Be it mental, dental, conformation, history, whatever. I've seen some gorgeous dressage done in a halter on a horse that truly understood self carriage. A bit is not a crucial piece of equipment for dressage. Your legs, seat, and years of muscle building and training to gain true self carriage and connection is crucial. The bit is a conventional piece of dressage equipment and what our traditions are built off of. The double is still mandatory at FEI, I don't see bitless becoming a welcome addition any time soon. And for the average, low level dressage rider, it's going to be difficult to get that level of self carriage without a bit. All the books and training are currently based on that assumption and, as someone trying to learn that skill right now, doing it without expert guidance is going to be freaking tough. But if your horse doesn't want to wear a bit and you still want to show? Go ahead. Just be aware that you'll be at a disadvantage because your communication will be different and you will have a harder time getting the outline the judge is used to seeing. It's just reality.

    And don't get all superior about how kind you are. You are just as capable of wrecking a horse without a bit as you are with one. I've met plenty of horses with white hairs on their nose while their owners tell me how they are superior riders because they go bitless. Ugh.

    I see no harm in the rule itself. And yes, someone will show upper level with no bit, good for them. But I can't do it, I'm not good enough, and most of the proponents aren't. And they're going to scream bloody murder when the cruel judges don't see their super special magical connection. I'll get the popcorn.

    1. Honestly, it's the exact same debate they had when they allowed snaffles in the FEI classes at the national level. Can you do it in a snaffle? Good for you! That doesn't make you superior, it just means your horse goes best that way. You can do GP in a bitless? Awesome! It's no better or worse than doing it in a double or a snaffle.

    2. I read this comment! Both of them actually. That's a high compliment on a Friday.

  12. Yah... I disagree.

    If you rely that much on a bit you're doing it wrong somewhere along the lines. I always thought bitless dressage would bring quite a few people to the sport, since I know of several horses who cannot compete with bits in their mouths due to issues with their jaws.

  13. I wish I was 150 pounds again...LOL...sorry, what were we talking about here? ;) #pregoproblems

  14. Uh. So. I kinda jumped off the deep end and responded with a ridiculously long post.

    TL;DR, I agree that bitless isn't the right choice for competitive dressage. Not because of tradition, but because of how integral the bit is to the entire development of a dressage horse and its submission and training.

    Find it here: Jumping In The Fray: Bits And Dressage, A Story Of Development And Principle

  15. Jaw officially dropped. Sorry but strongly disagree. Karen Rohlf for example...

    1. Okay seriously, are you sitting back with your bag of marshmallows gleefully waiting to roast them on this fire you stirred up? :)

    2. One last thing, here is an interesting article for those who want to peek in at the other side of the fence:

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Gotta use a real name if you want to stir the pot. ;-)

    2. Poster made a good point though ...

    3. Srsly - someone had to say it.


  18. I have never ridden dressage, nor bitless so I don't have any insight... I just think your drawing skills are hilarious lol

  19. I was captivated by the tophats. I don't know enough about dressage to weigh in. I just love the art.

  20. I have on OTTB that LOVES his bitless bridle. We aren't planning on showing but if I can ride my firecracker red dragon off my seat and legs when he spooks and quietly comes back then I'm all good. He comes round and through for me just like any other horse I've ridden with a bit. The bitless makes me ride better. The bitless makes him happy. My other horse, a Morgan/QH cross, oh hell no, he made his own tension and I couldn't stop the freight train bitless when he bolted.


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